NEW YORK -- The Lion's Head, the venerable Greenwich Village saloon long known for nurturing writers and artists, where Jessica Lange once waited tables, where Rod Steiger got his mail and where the Clancy Brothers provided free entertainment, may be facing its own last call.
The bar's owners, Wes and Judy Joice, owe some $250,000 in back state and federal sales taxes. And unless they come up with a satisfactory investor before an Oct. 20 appearance in federal bankruptcy court, the Head -- as it's universally known -- could close permanently.
Perched on a stool at the long wooden bar, Judy Joice says she's optimistic, that there are actually three would-be investors, whom she declined to identify, and she's hopeful that the bankruptcy judge will approve one along with a plan for repayment. But she's also cautious -- other plans and deals have fallen through -- and she conceded, "We need some money infusion or we can't stay open."
She said the literary hangout was brought to its precarious position by two things that have battered countless other Village businesses: AIDS and the economy.
"[Beginning] in 1985 there was this great fear of AIDS," Joice said, "and no information about how it was transmitted. People panicked, and restaurants took a hit for nine months or a year. Then in '87 was the stock market crash. That's when it started to get more and more difficult. At the same time it was the '80s, there were outrageous rents and taxes went up enormously." She estimates that the Head's rent rose more than 600 percent.
To close the Head would be to slam the door on a wealth of history, literary and otherwise.
"Norman Mailer ran his campaign headquarters [for mayor of New York] from that round table," said Joice, gesturing at a battered wooden table at the rear of the restaurant adjoining the bar. "And that's the table where [journalist] Pete Hamill talked Robert Kennedy into running for the Senate."
The variety of people who populated the bar was extraordinary. Joice hired Jessica Lange in 1976 as a waitress and remembers her as "quite shy, very sweet, very unassuming. She left for her job [and career break] in 'King Kong.' "
Hamill, who began patronizing the Head in 1967, recalls the "weird magic" that emanated from an "amazing mix" of regulars that included Communists, writers, seamen, actors, reporters and singers.
"You could be sure that every night you'd go in, you'd be surprised by something," he said. "The classic situation was you'd have poets at one end of the bar and stockbrokers at the other, and the stockbrokers would be talking about poetry and the poets would be talking about money."
Paul, the day bartender for 22 years, likes to tell the story about the time some years back when "some ladies came in and turned to a gentleman at the bar and said, 'Is this the place where writers with drinking problems come?'
" 'No,' came the reply, 'this is the place where drinkers with writing problems come.' "
Physically, the bar is unprepossessing, bordering on scruffy. It is three steps below sidewalk level, meaning the windows, with their black protective grates, show little more than people's legs going by.
In the bar area, the walls above the old wood floors are decorated with the jacket covers of books written by Head regulars, ranging from TV journalist Linda Ellerbee to former Mayor Ed Koch. And over the bar is the creature that gave the saloon its name: a carved oak lion, circa 1908, taken from the Prudential Insurance Building in Newark, N.J.
The Lion's Head first opened at a different location, without a liquor license, in 1958, then moved to its present site on Christopher Street, just off Sheridan Square, in 1966. Over the years there have been wakes and weddings at the Head, along with a few bar mitzvahs and countless book parties.
Even the pay phone by the door has its history.
That little instrument, Hamill once wrote in the Village Voice, "was the true locus of disaster, the place from which too many marriages were destroyed, lies told, assignations arranged or rejected. . . . From that phone, men quit jobs or dictated newspaper columns or said unforgivable things to women they loved."
Roger Simon is on vacation. His column will resume Wednesday.